It was 2004 and the final game of the season at Highbury. Arsenal were 1-0 down to Leicester City at half-time, courtesy a Paul Dickov header past Jens Lehmann. The Gunners had already won the league three weeks before that game, but in that dressing room on that day Arsene Wenger paced about with a tenacious demeanour.
What could he say to a side that were already champions? How could ‘Le Professor’ impart, in the fewest words possible, what he wanted from them in the next forty-five minutes? That was a dressing room that had some of the most intelligent and world-class talent ever assembled in Arsenal’s history.
As Wenger recalled in 2014, in his interview with The Guardian to commemorate the 10th year since he achieved ‘that’ feat, “Yes. I must say I have worked at the top level for 30 years and always when you look back with successful teams you always come to the same conclusion: the guys were intelligent.”
”You have players with talent every year, but to achieve something special, first of all, you win it by little margins that at some stage of the season become very tight, and you need your players to respond with intelligence to get through these difficulties. You look back and the only thing that strikes you – you can take Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira, Cole etc. – they are all intelligent.”
As Wenger paced about that room that day at Highbury and looked at the faces around, he tried to gather what could be told to his team that was on the cusp of infamy.
The team ran out in the second half and were completely rejuvenated – they had purpose, they had conviction and belief in what they wanted to achieve that day – they wanted to achieve greatness, that was their one aim, even though they had won the title. The ‘Invincibles’, were what they wanted to be remembered as.
And it is in such times that the real big personalities reveal their inner giant selves. Cue the genius, Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutchman strolled with the ball in the centre of the park, pensive and calculated, waiting for the right opportunity.
He saw his, then young full-back Ashley Cole, making an intelligent run into the box, the Dutch No. 10 immediately chipped a lofted ball over the top of the Leicester defence to Cole who was then fouled in the box, resulting in a penalty. Up stepped another genius, Thierry Henry. The Frenchman had already hit an astonishing 29 Premier League goals that season and was gunning to become Arsenal’s first ever player to hit 30 league goals in a season since Ronnie Rooke more than 50 years before that.
Henry ran up confidently and slotted the ball to his left to bring Arsenal level to 1-1, they would be unbeaten, they would be ‘invincible’. However, to make sure Leicester didn’t spoil the record and the party, they put the game to bed, the Gunners’ captain and leader of the ‘Invicinbles’, Patrick Vieira, applied the finishing touch. Vieira would stride forward after exchanging passes with Bergkamp, as the Dutchman played a delightful through ball to his captain leaving the Leicester defence bemused.
Vieira finished off coolly after rounding the keeper, sealing the game and making history. Arsenal won 2-1 making them the first team in the modern Premier League era to finish a season unbeaten.
Wenger reminisced about that team talk, “I told them: ‘Look we have won the championship, now I want you to become immortal.’ They were thinking: ‘This guy is completely mad.’ What does he want from us? What is he talking about? But somewhere, they started to believe. In the games, even though the games were not convincing as there was no real urgency, we did just enough. We didn’t lose. When we were down against Leicester you could see the response was strong. I had no worry any more.”
That was what he needed to say, immortal – that was the word he was looking for. It was Arsenal’s and Wenger’s greatest ever feat. Unbeaten for a whole season. However, since that day, when that group of players lifted the cup, the club have since not won the Premier League title. That was fourteen years ago. Fourteen long, hard and testing years for the club, it’s manager and it’s fans.
The glaring lack of quality
Looking at the squad of the Invincibles, they had quality over the pitch – Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Vieira, Ljungberg, Gliberto, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Toure, Keown, Lehmann and Reyes, and a young Fabregas on the bench. That was the last Arsenal team that won the Premier League. Most were all key players for their national sides; a lethal squad, oozing class and talent. That was 14 years ago.
Since then, Wenger has failed to get players of enough quality to match up to that team. It’s glaring and very evident. Since 2003, Wenger has stopped bringing in players of the same quality, except for Robin Van Persie, while every other team in the Premier League has.
The only players who can be deemed ‘world-class’ in the current squad are – Petr Cech (who is 34), Laurent Koscielny (31), Mesut Ozil (28), Alexis Sanchez (28) and the upcoming, 21-year-old Hector Bellerin. Maybe Aaron Ramsey on his day, but the Welshman has fitness and consistency issues. That’s five players out of their 25 man squad.
The rest of the Arsenal team are nearly there, they're a bit above average, but they’re just not of the same level as proper ‘world-class’ players. That, is the biggest reason Arsenal have not won a Premier League title for 14 years or the Champion’s league at all.
As Roy Keane said while speaking about Arsenal’s squad strength recently on ITV after the 5-1 disaster against Bayern Munich,
"We've said it before, though. Lack of leaders, lack of characters, hunger, desire. But I have to say, tonight at this level, this stage of the competition, they're just not good enough.”
"So there's no point in being too critical of them, because they're not good enough. They've only got two decent players. The rest, average," he concluded.
Maybe that was a bit harsh, but Keane was speaking the truth. They simply don’t have enough quality on the pitch to handle in-game situations whether in the league or in Europe and they won’t win either, until Wenger gets quality back in.
The financial constraints since Arsenal’s shift from Highbury to the Emirates is a huge reason for Wenger’s altered transfer policy. It is no secret that the club have been forced to curtail their spending due to the shift to the more expensive, more lucrative, Emirates Stadium. It was a move mooted by Wenger himself, as confirmed by the Gunners’ ex-defender Martin Keown recently in an interview.
After delving a bit into the numbers, the figures are starkly impressive. The stadium itself cost £165.6million with the interest of the various loans they took for it at 7.7% per annum (as per Arsenal’s financial statements in 2005). That would make the total cost of the stadium in principal, plus interest at rougly £319 million.
Back in 2005, a year before Arsenal left Highbury for the Emirates, the club reported an annual group turnover of £138.4 million. While last year, the club reported a group turnover of £353.5 million. Arsenal raked in £344.5 million in 2015, £148.8 million in 2014, £137.9 million in 2013 and £138.4 million in 2012. While Forbes values the club at £1,358 million and a recent report by Deloitte suggests that Arsenal are 7th in the world in the 'football club rich list’ ahead of even Chelsea by about €21 million.
Arsenal made up for the cost of building the Emirates Stadium with their revenues over the last two or three years itself. It was an issue for Wenger when it came to spending, but that was only until 2011-12. It was a problem for 5-6 years, after which for the last 5 years the money has been there.
A further look at some more finances shows that Arsenal’s wage bill for all their players and staff was at nearly £200 million in 2016. It was at £66.2 million in 2005. That’s an expense that has ballooned three times in the last decade. Of course, the ever increasing demands and price-tags of players is a huge factor and obviously inflation, but anything more than 1.5 -2 times over 11 years is a problem.
Clearly, Arsenal are spending a considerably large amount of money on their player and staff contracts, which if was estimated, projected and curtailed could have been used to secure better players. It’s quality versus quantity in the end.
While a number of Gunners fans have bemoaned the lack of transfers and players coming in. The fact of the matter is this – Arsenal have spent when there was money available, but not wisely.
A look at their key transfers reveals battering flaws. Mesut Ozil cost Arsenal £42.5 million, while Eden Hazard – who lead Chelsea to a title in 2014-15 – cost Chelsea £32 million; Granit Xhaka – who has had disciplinary issues this season – cost Arsenal £30 million, while N’Golo Kante cost Chelsea £29 million and Ander Herrera cost Manchester United £29 million. German defender Shkrodan Mustafi cost Arsenal £35 million, while David Luiz cost Chelsea £34 million and Eric Bailly cost United £30 million.
It’s a hard to digest truth, but Arsenal have spent more in those positions than their rivals for players who aren’t as good or better than their rivals’ signings.
Who is to blame: Wenger or the board?
It is a bit of both. The regime as a whole is at fault. Arsene Wenger, for carelessly bringing in average talents and masquerading them as ‘world-class’ while not being able to deliver a major trophy despite enough money being available. Whatever happened to the shrewd, masterful signings of the likes of Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Vieira, Fabregas, Robin Van Persie and co.?
Arsenal need more players of that calibre in their squad and to buy them when they’re young – just like Wenger used to. The five world-class players at Arsenal currently, need the support of at least three more.
While the board is also to be blamed for lacking the ambition, desire and hunger to win trophies. The likes of ‘silent’ Stan Kroenke and Ivan ‘missing’ Gazidis, are happy to grow the club as a business, raking in huge revenues but not delivering titles. The Premier League and the Champions League, that's what the fans want; it’s what the club deserves.
However, it's appalling that the club’s owners and board don’t seem to care about winning major titles and are content enough with the revenue growth. It's the age old debate of making money versus making history and it’s about time they open their eyes and choose wisely.
What do Arsenal need then?
In two words – pragmatism and quality. The club must be more calculated and pragmatic when it comes to the contract situation. They need to get players to sign contracts without alarmingly high wages, taking into account the time to reward them with higher deals based on their performance in the future. When a player like Theo Walcott – who isn’t a world class player and has failed to live up to his potential – is one of the club’s top five earners, you know you have a problem.
When it comes to quality on the pitch, this is what the Gunners need – a striker who can hit 25 goals every season (not Oliver Giroud), a centre back who can help Koscielny in conceding less than 20 goals a season, a holding midfielder with some bite and energy (better than Coquelin and Xhaka), and another top class inside forward or winger on the opposite flank to Sanchez (Griezmann, Reus, anybody in the top bracket).
Then and only then will this side, managed by Wenger, with his football style, do serious damage. Till then, Arsenal will struggle, and if they do win any major trophy, except the FA Cup, it’ll be quite surprising. This club and its fans don’t deserve to be slaughtered 5-1 by Bayern Munich, they deserve to compete on the same level, run them close and reach finals.
Arsenal don’t need to sack Wenger, he has been the best manager in the club’s history. They need more quality. They need to become ‘immortal’ again.